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Reopening of The WPF (When Pigs Fly) Observatory
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Reopening of The WPF (When Pigs Fly) Observatory
Sic itur, ad astra, per alas porci …
… Thus, one goes to the stars, on the wings of a pig.
Written by David Aylsworth
After quite a long time in limbo I recently began to rehabilitate my backyard observatory. It had lain fallow for a couple of years due to life distractions and the rationalization that I could go there any time I wanted. After shoveling out the POD from a recent mid-February snowstorm I went inside to inspect the mount, telescopes, and surroundings. I recalled many good, and frustrating times spent here with the night sky. I also wistfully recalled setting up a variety of telescopes over the years, to observe throughout the seasons, on this very spot, without the benefit of having a place out of the wind. I felt a twinge of guilt about leaving this system to the spiders, in a state of disuse for so long.
Let’s get an overview of the observatory and systems to begin. Over the past 20 years I had put together a good equatorial mount and several telescopes. They have been housed in a SkyShed POD (personal observatory dome) since 2012. The mount is a Celestron CGEM-DX, and currently the resident telescopes consist of a Celestron C6R, 150mm (6 inch) f/8 achromatic refractor and an Orion ED80T CF f/6 80mm (3.14 inch) apochromatic refractor with a carbon fibre tube. The Orion StarShoot guide camera and 50mm scope round out the mix. The CGEM-DX mount, telescopes and accessories are supported on the heavy duty Celestron tripod using a variety of rails, cradles, and clamps to support the scopes. The weight of the whole system standing on the ground is around 77.3 kg (175 lbs). The hand controller, cameras, guide camera and focuser are connected via USB cables and a powered USB 2.0 hub so that the entire rig can be operated from the kitchen table. It had worked at one time, so I was confident I could get it working again.
If you think taking pictures of intrinsically faint objects in the middle of the night from a Bortle 8 zone, with a telescope and camera are hard, try doing it from 10 meters (30 ft) away in the comfort of your kitchen. Uh, yeah! Right!? When pigs fly!! Ergo, the rechristened name of my rehabilitated observatory. Those long nights in the cold spurred the dream that over time blossomed into the observatory that’s been assembled. Now was time to live up to the rationalization that “I could go there any time I wanted.”
The temperature was hovering about -15°C (5°F) as I began getting reacquainted with everything. I connected the observatory power to a portable battery pack and got some lights going. The whole area got vacuumed and wiped down to evict the largest part of the spider webs, random crickets and dust that had found their final rest in the confines of the POD. The purge also included cleaning of the inside surfaces of the POD dome as well. After clearing up the debris, I started uncovering the scopes. I wiped a few seasons of dust which had settled through the covering blankets, used to keep condensation off them. The castings of the mount RA and Dec heads were in generally good shape and showed no signs of surface corrosion. The 11 kg (22 lb) counterweights showed some minor surface corrosion but were in good shape otherwise. The chromed sections of the counterweight shaft and tripod legs also had some minor pitting due to surface corrosion. Later this spring I’ll try to smooth the chrome parts with some polishing compound. Almost everything else is made of stainless steel, anodized aluminum, or plastic where a simple wipe down sufficed.
With most of the dirt removed it was time to power up the mount and accessories. The first start of the CGEM-DX mount was disappointing. It appeared to start up normally but no matter which button I pressed, or how soft or hard, there was no response from the mount. The first glitch was a bit of a gut punch: what if the mount has gone south during its long hiatus? I soon reasoned that after laying dormant for a long time there might be corrosion on the contacts of the handset. The mount was powered down and the handset put aside to look after later. It was now time to turn my attention to the optical components.
The first subject for analysis was the 150mm (6 inch) refractor and as I shone a light onto the objective, I saw it was in fairly good shape with a few specks where dew had collected and dried on the surface of the lens. The inside of the tube showed some dust, but the main attraction was the ossified remains of a long-gone flying bug on the inside of the optical cell. It’s not paying rent, so eviction is imminent. After completing my review of the optical tube and focuser I added cleaning the Celestron C6R to my to-do list. The inspection of the Orion ED80T CF APO showed about the same amount of external spotting on the outer lens from many nights under the sky. After more inspection I noted a few dust motes on the inside of the OTA with one of them backing up onto the inside surface of the lens assembly. It seemed to be in generally better condition than the C6R but would also need to be cleaned.
So, after a few hours toiling in the cold, first shovelling out then opening and cleaning the observatory, I had created a substantial list of to-do items needing to be looked after to get back up and running again. After removing the cabling from both scopes the ED80T was dismounted and set aside. The dismount of the C6R ‘sky cannon’ was a close thing inside the POD dome. The length of that scope leaves about 20 cm (8 inch) to manipulate it inside the closed dome. The other added feature of this operation is that the scope and focuser, with no other accoutrements, weigh about 14 kg (28 lbs) and is lifted from the cradle rings that are about eye level for a person of average height. After maneuvering this sky cannon off the mount and out of the POD I hauled the optical tube and handset into the house to start the journey to getting the PODservatory back to operating condition.
The handset for Celestron telescope mounts haven’t been a strong point in my view. Maybe I’m just the fellow who has had a few that balked on me at times. This one, from the CGEM-DX, had already been having some key press issues before I abandoned the observatory. In cold weather Celestron handsets are notoriously hard to read anyway. The lower line shows a jumble of flashing pixels as characters flow under it in cold temperatures. Somewhere in the way-back machine of my memory I recalled having to disassemble and clean handsets from Celestron mounts I had previously owned (Nexstar 5 and Nexstar 11 GPS), so it seemed a natural progression that the handset for the CGEM-DX would also need a cleaning. Yes, yes, I know that opening the handset of my 10-year-old mount will void the warranty. I got this!!!
I opened the back of the handset and carefully separated the components. Under the rubber membrane that serves as the keypad the micro switches did not appear to be dirty or corroded. It didn’t stop me from cleaning them anyway. First, I wiped down all accessible surfaces with 90% isopropyl alcohol. Then the rubber membrane was thoroughly cleaned. I followed up by cleaning each of the switches on the board with a Q-tip dabbed in alcohol. I returned my attention to the switches to clean each of them with a small amount of electrical contact cleaner.
I dry fit the case back together and pressed each of the buttons about a dozen times to help with the cleaning process. After another disassembly and wipe down to remove any excess contact cleaner, the controller was reassembled. I marched it right outside and plugged it back into the mount, then powered up the mount. This time the mount responded to the appropriate key presses. The display was easy to read while the handset was still warm from being in the house, but the performance deteriorated as it dropped back down to the ambient temperature of around -15°C (5°F).
This was the first major task completed. The handset wasn’t dead. Still, it’s an earlier model that needs a serial-to-USB dongle to talk to the computer. I remembered, with dread, the struggle to get a stable serial-to-USB connection in Windows 8 because of unstable drivers so I was not looking forward to attempting to connect that mess to my Windows 10 laptop. A short while later I ordered the newer version Nexstar+ hand controller with built-in USB. Celestron quite cleverly built a Prolific model serial-to-USB hardware interface into the handset. Consequently, I deferred the opportunity to struggle again with my existing Prolific model dongle and Windows 10. At least now I have a back up handset.
The Celestron C6R
This telescope is the stereotypical image most people hold in their mind when they think of an astronomical telescope. It’s big, and it’s black, and it’s heavy, and it’s big. The overall length of the scope with the dew hood and focuser attached is around 1.37 meter (54 inch) and the 150mm (6 inch) diameter tube makes it look like a rocket launcher. At over 10 kg (22 lbs) this configuration consists of the Moonlite focuser with a high-resolution stepper motor that replaces the stock focuser at one end and the doublet achromatic lens cell at the other. The focuser is removed easily enough by undoing 3 screws and withdrawing it from the tube. The lens cell is another story altogether.
Some points for clarity here. I handled the equipment that was brought inside while wearing gloves and a mask. A variety of cleaning supplies were assembled such as, non-surgical masks, Q-Tips and cotton balls, 90% isopropyl alcohol and the other sundry supplies. An easy enough thing to do in these days of COVID. Also, the room where the service was being performed had been wiped down and cleaned in preparation for the tasks ahead. A couple of the non-surgical masks were placed over the heating vents. In addition to a recent furnace filter change, there are a couple of air cleaners, and fans pushing air away from the “clean” work area.
The dew shield slides off the outer part of the lens assembly providing access to the mounting screws and outer lens component. The lens cell consists of two parts: the lens assembly itself which detaches from the optical tube and the mounting base which remains attached to the end of the aluminum optical tube. To spare myself confusion later, I put several differing index marks spanning both parts, around the perimeter of the lens cell, and next to the assembly screws. I did this so that I’d be able to correctly align the lens cell with the mounting base later. Care should be taken to only undo the three Phillips mounting screws and leave the collimation set screws alone. As with the focuser, I set the lens cell aside temporarily and set to work cleaning what I was able to from the inside of the optical tube. There are a series of 3 baffles spaced along the inside of the tube that are used to stop unwanted light from passing to the observer, or in my case a camera sensor.
The optical tube has limited room to manoeuvre inside, so accessing the inside spaces took some doing. I was able to remove quite a few layers of dust and debris using a combination of a vacuum and a Swiffer duster on a handle. After a few rounds it’s not quite black inside, but it is a darker gray so I’m counting it as a win. After cleaning the interior of the optical tube, I set to work cleaning the exterior surfaces, making note of the variety of scuffs and scratches that collected over time, some since it arrived in 2014. With the telescope tube cleaned inside and out, the ends were covered with latex gloves to help diminish any new debris.
My attention now turned to the focuser. For readers who’ve handled equipment from Moonlite, you’ll know it’s hefty at about 1.6 kg (3.5 lbs) and you’ll also know it’s heavy duty with the load it can handle, as well as from the mass of the device. Essentially, all I did was to give it a good cleaning all over and set it aside. As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Finally, I came to the optical cell. Made up of one piece of crown glass and one piece of flint glass, housed in a machined aluminum shell. I closely examined the exposed surfaces of both elements and used a squeeze bulb blower and a soft makeup brush to get most of the dust and stuff off. The ossified remains of the wayward insect were nudged away with a gentle prod from a Q-tip. After removing most of the dust in the first go around, I re-gloved and took up my bowl of cotton swabs and some freshly prepared Arkansas Sky Observatory cleaning and rinsing solutions then set to work cleaning nearly 353 cm² (56.5 in²) of exposed glass. For those who are interested, here’s the link to the ASO optics cleaning solution. http://arksky.org/aso-guides/aso-general-guides/23-aso-fine-optics-cleaning-system
Key points: don’t over soak the whole lens, spray some cleaning solution onto a cotton ball and gently dab the surface of the lens. Move from the centre out to the edge, discarding the soiled cotton balls frequently. Repeat until the whole surface of the lens has been cleaned. The next step is to use a cotton ball to gently wipe the lens from the centre to the edge, in one direction only. Discard the soiled cotton balls frequently. When it comes to cleaning up the damp spots around the perimeter of the lens, use a clean Q-tip and gently roll the Q-tip as it’s moved around the perimeter. Discard the used Q-tips frequently as they absorb any remaining cleaning solution. Repeat the same procedure with the rinsing solution and the lens comes up all clean and shiny. The only enemy now is airborne dust and the what-have-you that always seems to find its way to clean glass. There was a good size mound of soiled cotton balls, Q-tips and gloves after this cleaning exercise was completed but the lens was now pristine. With this task completed, the lens cell was ready to be reassembled onto the tube. Something hanging on the inside piece of glass after the first reassembly began marathon rounds of “disassembly, cleaning, reassembly and inspection”. Once the lens cell was finished and back together the focuser was assembled onto its end of the tube marking the completion of this major milestone of the restoration project. It’s now the beginning of March and the weather is moderating a bit.
The upgraded Nexstar+ hand controller arrived the day before the C6R was remounted. The following day I lifted the C6R back onto the cradle that holds it on the mount, and the tube was shimmed into the rings with strips of plastic binder covers to secure it and prevent slippage in the rings while the telescope moves, or while photographing the sky. I began balancing the C6R main scope with a diagonal, and the chunkiest eyepiece in my case. Once I was satisfied with the balance, I set the mount to the Index positions and powered it up. The new handset had to be initialized and once that was done, I ran through a Two Star Alignment. Fortunately, the geometry of this scope and the interior dimensions of the dome allow the telescope to sweep in any direction through the full arc of the sky. After performing the mock alignment, I drove it around the virtual stars on the inside of the dome for a minute. The Home position for the scope was set in the hand controller and then the mount was put to sleep with the Hibernate command, the power was turned off. When I powered on and woke the mount up again it was back to the factory default date and time. The Real Time Clock (RTC) was set to ON, in the menus but the time wasn’t saved so I deduced that the CR2032 battery was another casualty of the hiatus. I replaced the battery with a fresh one and the configuration repeated. This time the mount retained the RTC settings after waking up.
I brought my Toshiba astronomy laptop to the observatory and plugged in the new handset, where … it worked, as advertised. There were updates available for the handset, but my mount did not appear on the Celestron update app. The Windows Device Manager showed that a virtual COM port was assigned, so I started up my planetarium program, The SkyX Pro, and updated the COM port setting there. The software saw the mount, and connected rock solid. I drove the telescope around the inside sky of the dome for several minutes getting more milage out of telescope and mount in an afternoon than it’s seen in two years. I’m feeling satisfied now that things are looking good.
Over the preceding week I’d spent quite a few evenings testing the USB cables I’d need for this project. There would be the three 4 meter (12 ft) cables that go from the mount to the pull-out table in one of the bump-out bays attached to the observatory. There are also the three 10 meter (33 ft) USB cables that come from the mount to the house. After they’d tested out okay with the two Canon EOS cameras I use for astrophotography I bundled the cables together with cable ties and trimmed the tails. The cable testing next to the mount went pretty much as expected. The focuser and guide camera connected, and thanks to preinstalling the necessary Windows 10 drivers they all started up without issue. The components had all been coming together but there was still one very key element that had to be precisely right for all of this to produce good results. The mount had to be polar aligned.
These two words have likely frustrated many amateur astrophotographers over the course of time. For a good photograph to be taken of faint deep sky objects, a camera, attached to a telescope, must be able to move precisely at the same rate to match the movement of a celestial object as it travels from east to west across the sky. It must also move parallel to the same plane as the object. Easy peasy, right? Not so much. A telescope mount which is attached to a leveled tripod, has a base section that can be rotated a few degrees to either side of North. There is also a polar axis section that has to be tilted to the same angle as the observer’s latitude. Proper alignment allows the telescope polar axis to rotate parallel to the Earths axis, and so, it would only need to move in one direction to track an object once a good polar alignment has been achieved.
Northern hemisphere observers are fortunate to have Polaris conveniently close to the North Celestial Pole as an aid for locating the position of the centre of rotation of the north polar axis. Our mates south of the equator don’t have a similarly convenient star marking the reference point of the South Celestial Pole. Telescope manufacturers have devised some ingenious software methods to achieve good polar alignment, even when the position of the pole is obscured. Celestron call the software routine in their mounts All Star Polar Alignment. Since I’m only familiar with Celestron equipment, I’ll be discussing their process here.
The CGEM-DX mount requires an initialization by performing a Two-Star Alignment. This process locates and refines the position of two stars west of the meridian, as well as up to 4 stars on the east side of the meridian, thereby giving the mount a frame of reference of the sky for that location. When the alignment is successfully completed the handset can be used to display the degree of error of the polar alignment of the mount. The values show the positive or negative amount of error in Altitude and Azimuth. Another section of the Align menu allows the software to aid aligning the mount after syncing on a star. The mount software will use the information from the last alignment and the recent star alignment to calculate the offset from the actual position of the star. The mount will move to the “actual” position of the selected alignment star and the operator will be prompted to use the Altitude and Azimuth adjusters on the mount, not the hand controller, to move the star to the centre of the eyepiece or camera display, so correcting for the error in the polar alignment. After completing this procedure, it is necessary to start from the beginning with another Two-Star Alignment to determine how close the adjustments brought the mount to being correctly polar aligned. Typically, two or three cycles of this procedure will bring the scope to within 2 arcminutes of error. The extra care taken in setting the mount to the starting index marks, and while centring stars throughout these tasks, pays off quickly with a higher degree of accuracy in the polar alignment of the telescope.
Near the end of one of those frigid nights dedicated to achieving a good polar alignment there was a puzzling episode. As I was performing another Two Star Alignment the mount suddenly powered off and reset itself back to the factory default date and time. Several attempts to get the Real Time Clock to update were fruitless. With the late hour and the intense cold, I relented and closed the observatory to retreat to the warmth of the house. The next day I considered what happened the previous night and the only conclusion I could draw was that the replacement battery I’d used had gone bad. Back out to the observatory where I removed the screws and gently extracted the circuit board from the mount head. The CR2032 battery holder was empty. The CR2032 battery was nowhere to be seen. After a couple of minutes I finally spotted it over in the back corner behind a motor housing. A piece of masking tape on a long twig was used to reach in and pluck the battery from the corner. It was still testing good, so I returned it to the battery holder, making sure the little spring clip had captured the edge of the battery firmly. Just to be doubly sure, I used some masking tape to secure the battery in place then tested the mount to be confirm that I could save the settings.
Two clear and VERY cold nights were used to get the polar alignment down to under 2 arcminutes of error in Altitude and Azimuth. These values are generally recognized as being within an acceptable tolerance of polar alignment for astrophotography. My manipulation of the Alt and Az controls was interspersed with some blue language as I fumbled my way around on the floor of the observatory, in the dark. Among the false starts were several rather hard knocks to my noggin as I repeatedly bonked my head off the telescope tube or the counterweights in a couple of instances. In addition to the frozen yoga I was practicing, my ninja-like senses were severely tested. Mostly for the absence of ninja-like senses. I did more squatting, kneeling, and standing up than I ever did during a Catholic high mass. Apologies to the devout here. No offence intended, just an observation from a lapsed RC. After a few nights of these rigours the mount was finally well aligned with the north celestial pole. My body had also been conditioned to remember how low to duck as I move around in the observatory, and to look up before standing up. All I needed now was the next clear night to bring everything together, and a hot Epsom salts bath.
The Orion ED80T Carbon Fibre Apochromatic
With most of the system all together there was still one part that required attention. The ED80T CF apochromatic refractor would need to be cleaned before being used for photography. With the ED80T in hand, I retreated to the basement workshop for the next step. My ‘clean’ room was coming in quite handy. It's not really a clean room, but it's as close as I can get. All these countermeasures helped to reduce the content of ambient airborne particles.
Having started my working life as a toolmaker I’m not as afraid of machines as perhaps I should be at times. So, when I saw dust inside the tube and around the inner perimeter of the 80mm lens assembly I knew I’d have to clean it. I saw this video on YouTube once that showed how the focuser of an Orion ED80T CF unscrews from the carbon fibre tube and I figured the lens cell would also unscrew. Donning mask and gloves once more, I followed my preternatural mechanical instincts. What could go wrong? Right? Firmly holding the carbon fibre tube, I started turning the focuser, unscrewing it from the CF tube, and set it aside. Then I turned my attention to the lens cell. It didn’t take long to learn that the lens cell also unthreads from the carbon fibre tube. Using the same method as before, I removed the lens cell and set it aside. Next, I started cleaning the interior and exterior of the optical tube, followed by the focuser and finally the lens cell. After reassembling the three major components I checked that all screws were secure on the bottom foot and finder brackets, then hauled this little telescope back out to the observatory to remount it and balance out the system again.
The next clear night was the beginning of several clear nights with only the first quarter moon to interfere. Since I wanted to photograph a part of the spring galaxies in Leo I mounted the Canon 5D Mark IV to the ED80T and used the Pleiades (M45) as a target to focus the refractor. When the first image came on the screen I was horrified. ALL the stars, ALL the way across the field showed astigmatism. Silent expletives interleaved with my racing thoughts. I tried a few more images while playing with the focus. This was not good, not good at all. Several questions occupied my thoughts: How do I identify the problem? How do I correct the problem? What is the cause?
First things first, how did I identify the problem? After pointing to a star rich target area and trying to focus, I saw that the film plane wasn’t uniform. Even stars in the centre of the field had astigmatism. Having just disassembled the scope for cleaning I immediately drew the conclusion that there must be an issue related to reassembling the scope. I plucked it off the mount and retreated to the basement. Using a calibration target at the far end of the basement I was able to confirm what I’d seen outside. The lens and film plane were misaligned. While thoroughly inspecting the scope, I noted that the field stop inside the OTA seemed to be too close to the objective. Reviewing an iPhone photo taken when I first saw the dust inside the tube - sure enough, the profile of the field stop in the photo looked different than what I was seeing on the actual telescope. Looking up through the focuser end confirmed for me that the tube had been assembled backwards.
Moving to the question of how do I correct the problem? The consequence of my enthusiasm to see progress was that I neglected to mark one end of the OTA for orientation purposes. After correctly reorienting the tube, I reattached the focuser and lens cell then I took a few more images of the calibration target while adjusting for focus, with a much better outcome. After remounting the scope outside more test images were taken. The centre of the target was at a sharp focus while the stars around the edge showed the effects of field curvature characteristic of short focus refractors. Although the field was better oriented and uniform there was still some coma. A further detailed inspection of the focuser showed that the three clamping screws for the rotator mechanism needed adjustment to take out the flexure. I also found that the barrel of the camera adapter was not quite seated square. These adjustments resulted in the film plane being closely perpendicular to the light path. Afterwards I was satisfied that the significant collimation issues had been eliminated. I still have some coma at the edges, but I’ll need a field flattener to work that part out.
So, now to answer the question, what was the cause? I'm fairly sure that this one must be attributed to a user error of the "id-10-t" type. Notwithstanding the adventure detailed here, I'd do it again. To date I've disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled the 150 mm achromatic and the 80 mm apochromatic refractors. As an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, I have just enough knowledge, and lack enough caution to really make other amateurs blanche at my intrepidity. I think the results are worth it though.
All-Up and All-In
After nearly a month of effort and working through the details, the observatory finally appeared to be good to go. Some of the in-between times during the rehabilitation were spent getting familiar with the software suites again. I also took time to review the state of play in the DSLR world to see what other amateurs were doing with their DSLR’s as astrophotography cameras. The result of my studies is that I’m mostly still using the same software as before, with some new wrinkles. Of course, the Windows 10 operating system on my computer meant all the versions had to be upgraded. This time spent on the laptop getting familiar was rewarded by my first full night of star gazing (interrupted by the 80mm refractor repair) The night finally got under way at 11:30 pm and ran until 6:30 am when the last Flat image was recorded. The second First Light for the observatory bodes well for things to come. I’ve now had four good nights with only the moon to compete for the sky. It will take me another week to stack and process the dozen or so objects that have been collected during these past few days.
There are still quite a few things about the observatory that must be addressed. More cleaning is foremost among them once the ground is thawed out. I’ll also need to do something about the inline skate wheels that are inset to the top of the POD walls, on which the dome rolls. Over the past few seasons some of them have begun to shed the soft rubber shell off the roller blade wheel, leaving the hard nylon core to support the dome. Some of the bearings are suspect as well. I’ll try to source a new set of wheels over the course of the summer. After nine winters the base of pavers the POD sits on are getting frost heaved a bit more with each passing season. Not sure how I’ll work that part out, short of redoing the whole base I think it will be one of those, “I’ll just live with it” things. The silicon sealant used to weatherproof the dome halves is getting brittle and should likely be replaced. The exterior of the POD needs a good cleaning to get rid of a few years of grime, pollen, and bits of green stuff accumulating in the shady areas. Like I said, there’s a lot to do yet. Looks like I’ll be making the time for those things now that I’ve found the sky again.
Among the several things I learned along the path to restoring the WPF Observatory to good operating condition are, this is the best toy I’ve ever had in my life and I should not waste good by letting something like this run down and go into disuse. Another thing I re-learned along the way is the reinforcement of the Law Of Unintended Consequences. For every careless action there is a disproportionate negative result. Get careless with the toys and they stop working as intended. A more lasting result of all this work is just how different everyday struggles seem when we have something positive in our life to motivate us. The last thing learned in this adventure is that astronomy is still a great thrill for me, and others. I showed my neighbour a couple of the pictures that I’d taken since rehabilitating the observatory. My neighbour called his wife over to look at a picture on my phone and they “oohed” and “aahed” over it. It was a picture of Messier 13, the great globular cluster in Hercules, from the space flying over their yard, and it excited them to see something that they were otherwise unaware of. Truth be told, I liked seeing their enthusiasm too. Kind of infectious to know that I have the power to put the universe on a phone and excite someone else about space.
Clear Skies Folks! Keep looking up!
Post-Post Scriptum - Profound thanks to my reviewers and editors, Tammy Murphy / Mike Ducak for their keen eyes and constructive contributions to the revisions that brought out the story you are reading here.
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